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Review. Ambiguity among religious terms.
Origin of "Atheist." Resolving the ambiguity.

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Most of the North American public define an "Atheist" as a person who believes that no deity exists: neither a God, nor a Goddess, nor a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. This definition is reflected in most American dictionaries -- not just because most publishers are Christian, but because it is the purpose of dictionaries to follow the public's word usage. Some individuals who consider themselves Atheists mesh well with that definition. But they may be in the minority. Many, perhaps most, Atheists simply have no belief about deity. For them, Atheism is not an active disbelief in a deity or deities; it is simply a lack of belief in any of them.

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Ambiguity of religious terms:

In the fields of medicine and engineering, precise definitions of terms are of paramount importance. Otherwise, misunderstandings can cause disasters. Bridges may fall down and patients can die from excessive, insufficient, or wrong medication. However, the field of religion is very different. There are probably more religious terms with multiple, conflicting meanings than in any other area of human activity. We have detected at least 17 meanings to the term "Witch" -- mostly negative, and some mutually exclusive. We found eight meanings for the word "cult," and six for "Pagan."

There are also many different and mutually exclusive meanings to the term "Christian," among the 30 or 40 thousand faith groups worldwide which consider themselves Christians. All of these groups are correct, within their own definition of terms. But the meaning that they assign to "Christian" and "Christianity" often radically contradict each other.

This type of confusion extends to Atheism as well. There are many disagreements about the precise definition of the term "Atheist."

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Some background information about "Atheist"

bulletSyllabication: a·the·ist

bulletPronunciation: ā'thē-ĩst

bulletEtymology: Atheist originated in two Greek roots:

bullet"A" which means "without" or "not"

bullet"Theos" which means "deity"

This would seem to imply that an Atheist is either:

bullet A person who is without a belief in any deity. This definition would mainly include those who are simply unaware of the existence of any deity. It would also include a person who is either too young or who lacks the mental ability to conceive of a deity. In contrast to this, most Muslims believe that all babies are Muslim at birth, and only later in life may accept the teachings of another religion, or become Atheists, Agnostics, etc.

bulletA person who totally rejects the existence of any deity. Some may keep this belief to themselves; others may assert this belief to others.
bulletCapitalization: The terms "Atheism" and "Atheist" are normally not capitalized -- except when they begin a sentence -- because they are not proper nouns. On this web site, they are capitalized. This is not ignorance or carelessness on our part. We have intentionally decided to deviate from the usual practice.

There are countless definitions of the term "religion." The one that we use is unusually inclusive:

"Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview."

(A worldview is a set of basic, foundational beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.) We include Agnosticism, Atheism, Humanism, Ethical Culture etc. as belief systems similar to religions, because:

bulletThey all contain a "belief about deity." Their belief is that they do not know whether a deity exists, or they have no knowledge of a deity, or they sincerely believe that no deity exists.

bullet Some Atheists celebrate rituals at the solstices.

bulletAtheists, like everyone else, have derived a personal moral code, a philosophy of life and a worldview. These are based on secular considerations, not on belief in revelation from a deity. 

We recognize that many Atheists reject the concepts that Atheism is a religion, or is similar to religion, or functions in some ways as a religion. However, we feel that it is appropriate to capitalize these terms because we have capitalized the names of organized religions.

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Resolving the ambiguity:

Most adults in North America are Theists: they have a definite belief in one or more deities. Jews and Muslims generally believe in a male God who is viewed as a unity. Most Christians believe in a Trinity which is composed of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit -- three personalities who are simultaneously viewed as a single supreme being. Others believe in a Goddess, a group of male Gods, a group of female Goddesses or a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses.

But there are other possible beliefs concerning deities:

bulletA definite belief that no deity exists. The individual is solidly convinced that no supreme being exists in any form.

bullet No belief in a range of deities. Faced with a wide variety of conflicting beliefs about deities, the individual has not accepted any of them as true.

bulletA belief that the existence of a deity is unlikely, but not impossible. No certainty exists. However, if the person had to make a decision based on the existence or non-existence of a deity, they would probably assume that no deity existed.

bulletThe inability to reach a conclusion about deity. The person may have investigated proofs about the existence and non-existence of a deity and has not accepted any of them. They remain undecided, at least for the present, because of insufficient data.

bulletA belief that we cannot know anything about a deity, including whether one exists or not. The person may have concluded that there is no possibility that we can ever know whether a deity exists.

bulletA person may never have ever considered whether one or more supreme intelligences exist.

There is a general consensus that:

bulletA person who believes in a specific God, Goddess or combination of deities is a Theist.

bullet A person who actively denies the existence of any and all deities is one type of Atheist.

bulletA person who feels that we have no method by which we can conclude whether a deity exists is an Agnostic.

But there is no consensus on how to classify the other possible belief systems about deity/deities listed above. Some have suggested the use of modifiers, like:

bullet"Strong Atheist," or "Positive Atheist," or "Hard Atheist" to refer to a person who asserts that no deity exists.

bullet "Weak Atheist," "Negative Atheist," "Soft Atheist," "Skeptical Atheist" to refer to a person who simply has no belief in a deity because there are currently no rational grounds that support his/her/their existence.

bulletPeter Berger suggested that the term "methodological atheism" be used to describe theologians and historians who study religion as a human creation without declaring whether individual religious beliefs are actually true.

bullet The terms "Noncoherent Atheist" or "Noncoherentism" have been suggested to cover the belief that there is no way to have a meaningful discussions about deities, because there exist no coherent definition of "god."

bullet"Apathetic Atheism," or "Apatheism" have been suggested to cover the individual who doesn't really care whether Gods or Goddesses exist. They probably live with the assumption that no deity exists.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Webster's New World Dictionary; 3rd college edition," Page 86
  2. "One Look® dictionaries: Search dictionary web sites for words and phrases," at:
  3. The Barnes & Noble Encyclopedia," (1993), Page 81.
  4. The World Almanac and Book of Facts (2001), Page 692.
  5. "More on definitions on atheism," at:
  6. Dan Barker, "Losing Faith in Faith: From preacher to Atheist," Freedom From Religion Foundation, (1992), Page 99. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  7. Antony G.N. Flew, "God, Freedom and Immortality: A Critical Analysis," Prometheus Books, (1984), Page 14 Read reviews or order this book
  8. Michael Martin, "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification," Temple University Press, (1992), Page 463. Read reviews or order this book
  9. Gordon Stein, Ed, "An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism," Prometheus Books, (1980), Page 3. Read reviews or order this book
  10. Al Case. "What is atheism?," at:
  11. George Smith, "Atheism: The case against God," Prometheus Books (1989), Page 7. Read reviews or order this book
  12. "Why do I have many excellent reasons to be an atheist?," Quora (10 answers) at:

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or Home > Christianity > Christian personalities > God > Atheism > here

or Home > Religious information > God > Atheism > here

or Home > Spirituality > God > Atheism > here

 Home > Definitions > here

 Home > Religious Information > Glossary of terms > Multiple definitions > here

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Copyright © 2002 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2018-SEP-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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